Conducting Interdisciplinary Research: Challenges and Opportunities
By Jillian Alderman
Science accumulates knowledge in part by synthesizing findings from different disciplines and fields on a given topic. However, academic scholars often face challenges when striving to integrate knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines. Here I provide examples and suggestions for overcoming some of these challenges. Overall, I hope to encourage readers to collaborate and conduct research that spans disciplines, as doing so can be quite rewarding both personally and professionally.
Challenge 1: Finding Co-Authors
Finding like-minded co-authors who are interested in exploring a topic from an interdisciplinary perspective is never easier. However, university environments can offer some organic interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities. I highly recommend starting local. Consider whether your university has strong service-oriented interactions between schools, departments, and disciplines. When faculty work in committees, work groups, and alike, they forge bonds that can transcend the service scope. These connections can organically turn into meaningful research collaborations.
Additional local opportunities for collaboration are school or university-wide research workshops on themed topics, where colleagues convene to share research across disciplines. Attending these types of workshops regularly is a great way to identify potential co-authors outside of your discipline, and to spark ideas for future research.
Looking beyond your university, there are many established interdisciplinary networks that serve as a conduit for global cross-discipline communities, connecting academics, practitioners and policymakers. These networks provide an excellent resource for finding like-minded co-authors. For example, researchers who are interested in integrating accounting and information systems perspectives can participate in workshops hosted by the Association for Information Systems (AIS) Special Interest Group for Accounting Information Systems (SIG-ASYS). I have found these types of networks and events to be invaluable sources of knowledge and opportunities to generate connections, and encourage you to seek out similar networks in your field that provide formal outlets for interdisciplinary collaborations.
Challenge 2: The Publication Process
Another major challenge to conducting interdisciplinary research is the publication process. As top academic and practice journals tend to be domain-specific, the major risk is that a disciplinary journal often resists a viewpoint or approach outside of the norms for the discipline. However, several strategies help address this challenge. First, I suggest highlighting your interdisciplinary approach as one of the strengths and contributions of your work. Meeting this challenge head-on and turning a challenge into a strength can be a strategic approach that may be welcomed by editors and reviewers.
Next, it is important to frame your research paper to the audience for that journal. The framing of your manuscript’s introduction, theoretical framework, and conclusions sections could be entirely different based on the domain-specific journal target. Getting this right can be the determining factor of whether or not an editor will desk-reject or send your paper out for review. To help with this process, I typically search for a recently published article in the journal with a similar methodological or theoretical approach to use as a model for my paper.
Last, no matter where you choose to submit your article, there is still a concern that editors will have a challenge identifying appropriate reviewers for your paper, which may lead to a desk rejection or reviewer mismatch. Therefore, it can be helpful to guide the editors on the topical and methodological expertise necessary to review your paper, and perhaps provide specific suggestions for reviewers. While there are no guarantees that these suggestions will be followed by editors, it improves the chances that your paper will make it past the editor's desk and be reviewed by the intended audience.
Challenge 3: Time and Resources
Due to differences in domain-specific language, research norms, and topical knowledge, interdisciplinary research can be very time consuming. Stepping outside of your main area of expertise means familiarizing yourself with a different stream of research and conducting extensive literature search and reading. In addition, the types of problems that are solved through interdisciplinary research tend to be more complex. To meet this challenge, it is important to be realistic about the timelines for interdisciplinary projects. Anticipate that these projects may be long term commitments, and consider opportunities for funding that can help support the success of the project.
There are many research grant sources that look favorably on projects with interdisciplinary impacts. For example, in the past I collaborated with a group of co-authors on a project that combined accounting, finance, information technology, and psychology to explore investor decision-making. We were granted funding from FINRA to financially support data collection and release time to complete the project over a period of 3-4 years. I strongly believe that our framing of the project’s cross-disciplinary, applied contributions drove the decision for FINRA to award us this grant.
Inspired? Take Action!
I conclude this “research tips” note by encouraging each of you to consider opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. As you watch the news, hear students or practitioners voicing their concerns, scan journal articles, or even read the most recent CAR newsletters, do you see any topics that excite you? Can you identify one or more potential co-authors for collaboration? If so, I encourage you to take action now to connect with these individuals. Send them a quick email congratulating them on their accomplishment or extending your support, and let them know you may have shared interests. This small step can plant a seed that could grow into exciting partnerships for future collaborations.